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Any time, anywhere, any laptop

School Orewa College decided against an official student laptop programme. Instead, it’s encouraging students to bring in any laptop and connect wirelessly to the school’s network, explains Tony Zaloum.

At Orewa College we firmly believe that if students have easy access to computers then the shape of teaching and learning in the classroom will naturally and relatively quickly evolve. If students were able to bring a laptop or netbook to class and wirelessly gain access to key resources, then this would provide the catalyst for an evolution of sorts to happen in classrooms.
After many years of establishing our teaching and learning programme (Ako Orewa) and our values programme (Manaaki Orewa) we believe that our staff are well equipped to routinely recognise powerful opportunities for staff and students to exploit student laptops in the course of lessons and in planning lessons.
Having seen and read about many schools with laptop programmes of various descriptions, however, we quickly came to realise a few things:

  1. Not all these schools had a clear idea of what they were trying to achieve. In some cases, the drivers for a laptop programme had little to do with education and more to with window dressing;
  2. All laptop programmes required more technician support than we were able and willing to provide and, to simplify the technician’s job, many schools were mandating laptop brand and model; and
  3. While we do have a clear idea of how we would like ICT to be used in the classroom, we would not be able to offer an extensive laptop programme in any of the forms that we had seen operating in other schools.

So, what did we end up doing?
Orewa College is a state secondary school (Years 7-13) with around 1,750 students. We already have good servers and network infrastructure including Trapeze wireless (enterprise level wireless). Although we are now a Decile 9 school, we didn’t feel we should expect parents to buy a computer for their child that we mandated since many already had laptops. Also, we could not afford lots of extra technician time to keep hundreds of student machines working on our network. So the students had to be able to connect to our wireless network without any intervention from the school. We were basically after a slightly more sophisticated hotel-style wireless network.
This would mean parents could buy a machine they could afford. For all but the Art and Media students, a netbook would be sufficient. These can be picked up for not much more than $600 on special and, although not much use for gaming, work perfectly fine for school work and are very portable.
Specifically, what needed to happen was:

  1. Students were able able to connect to the network (via a secure connection) without any technician support from the school with whichever laptop they had;
  2. Any connected computer must have access to key network resources such as Internet, intranet, printing and clickview resources; and
  3. Internet activity can be tracked at a user level plus Internet and printing activity is charged.

Technically challenging
The above list may be fairly brief but it was technically challenging. We started the ball rolling late last year (technical bits and pieces) and started proper this year with students having all access detailed in a guide about half way through this term.
The team at Isometric Solutions (an ICT support company specializing in education) managed to get this all working for us to a point where Windows 7 machines need absolutely no settings made, they just log in and they’re in business. (XP and Vista machines both need some settings established.)
To support the students connecting to the wireless network, we provide detailed instructions for them to follow through themselves.
If they do not have any success in connecting, it’s their responsibility to work it out otherwise they just use their laptop as a standalone machine. This approach means that while we support the students heavily with documentation and ensure wireless points are operating, this is the extent of our support and so negating the need for hiring extra technicians.

If your school is thinking of a laptop programme …
There’s plenty of advice we could be giving but the main points would be:

  1. Make sure your staff are well equipped to deal with this change so that laptop use is enriching and powerful – there are strong educational outcomes.
  2. You need enterprise level wireless equipment – we use Trapeze Wireless and it works really well. The networking wireless gear many of us have at home simply does not work for this application and would represent significant security risks. Your wireless vendor should do a site survey and provide an official report to establish efficient placement of the wireless access points for reliable performance.
  3. The technical support you receive is the maker or breaker, many ICT support vendors will say they can deliver, but can they? Ensure that your technical people have done this before, it was not straight forward to get this working properly to the point where your technician needs to do nothing for the students.

The reaction (so far) and the future
Parents, students and teachers have been very positive. By and large, teachers see computers as, at the very least, an extension of the students’ work books and, in many cases, a real opportunity to enrich and differentiate in the classroom. Students love it and many were willing to bring their machines along even if there weren’t any networking resources at all.
Our wireless will be scaled up to cover much more of the site. Currently, we have just a handful of ‘hot spots’ but with the Trapeze wireless, it’s a simple job to introduce more hot spots or even move them around as funds become available.
We’re anticipating that the support for staff will change as they try more varied things in their classrooms. It is our job and skills as teachers to shape and guide laptop use in the classroom so that use is enriching and powerful. ICT support for teaching staff will be ongoing.
As mentioned earlier, we’re supporting students to connect to the wireless network only by documenting the process. If they’re unable to get their machine attached to our wireless network, in time we’re anticipating providing some sort of ‘tech angel’ service by training up a few competent students. These will be the only school-based form of support.

Tony Zaloum is Director ICT Projects at Orewa College

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Categories: Article, Issue 23

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